Friday, March 10, 2006

Making Time For Worship: Understanding Liturgical Seasons (Part 3)

by Michael Barber © 2006

(Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

It is abundantly clear from the New Testament that Jesus was careful to observe the liturgical seasons. In the Gospels, Jesus uses the Jewish feasts as the backdrop for his teaching. The other New Testament writers likewise draw significantly from imagery connected to the Old Testament festivals. Here we will consider the feast of Passover/Unleavened Bread (these two feasts were linked in second Temple Judaism).

Luke tells us that the Holy Family went up to Jerusalem for Passover every year (Luke 2:41).[1] In fact, the backdrop for the famous story of the finding of the boy Jesus in the temple was one such Passover pilgrimage (cf. Luke 2:41-51). Of course, the climax of the Gospel narratives—Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection—is told against the backdrop of the Passover.

The synoptic Gospels describe the way Jesus told the disciples to make the preparations for the Passover:

And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples said to him, "Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?" And he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the householder, 'The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?' And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us." And the disciples set out and went to the city, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover (Mark 13:12-15; cf. Matt 26:17-19, Luke 22:7-13).
What this passage seems to indicate is that Jesus already had something in mind. Jesus was, in some way, cognizant of the need to make arrangements for the meal. When Jesus and the disciples finally sat down for the meal, Jesus explains: "I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). From this it is clear that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover meal.[2] The significance of this should not be overlooked.

Last time we mentioned that the Jewish people came to attach eschatological (messianic) expectations to the Passover. The prophets, in fact, had used Exodus imagery in their promises of a future restoration. The most famous example of this is probably Isaiah 40: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Isaiah’s way in the wilderness draws from Exodus imagery, in which God prepared a way for his people in the desert. In fact, the term Exodus, comes from the word meaning the “way out” (ex = out; hodos = way or road).

Jeremiah had a phrase for the fulfillment of these New Exodus prophecies: "New Covenant."

"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." (Jer 31:31-34).
The New Exodus would surpass the first Exodus. Whereas the first Exodus delivered Israel from political bondage in Egypt, the New Exodus would bring about something even greater—deliverance from spiritual bondage to sin and iniquity. Whereas Israel broke the Old Covenant, the New Covenant would establish God’s people in holiness forever.

Jesus was clearly drawing on Jeremiah at the Last Supper. As he instituted the Eucharist, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Jesus clearly saw himself as fulfilling God’s New Exodus hopes—and with a New Exodus comes a New Passover meal.[3] This is what is implied in the description of Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”

Agnus Dei
The Gospel of John begins with John the Baptist’s declaration, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29, 36). The end of the Gospel likewise closes with the description of Jesus’ death as the true Passover sacrifice. In fact, John draws directly from the Passover regulations of Exodus 12. This is evident in a couple of passages.

First, John specifically tells us that while he was on the cross, Jesus was offered a drink from a sponge. While the other Gospels include such a report, only John tells us how they lifted the sponge up to Jesus’ mouth: “they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth” (John 19:29). John specifically notices that they lifted up a sponge attached to a “hyssop” branch. Why is that significant? In the Passover prescriptions found in Exodus 12, Israelites are told to sprinkle blood on the lintel of their doorposts with a hyssop branch: “Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood which is in the basin” (Exod 12:22).

Second, John notices that when the soldiers came to break the legs of those crucified (to hasten their deaths), Jesus was already dead. Because of this they did not break his legs. John tells us that this fulfilled the prescriptions for the Passover Lamb in Exodus 12:46, “Not a bone of his shall be broken” (John 19:36).

Keeping the Feast
In order to keep the Passover, three things were necessary: one had to (1) kill the lamb, (2) sprinkle its blood, and (3) eat it. Jesus is clearly described by John as the Passover Lamb. The Catholic understanding of the Eucharist flows from this notion: the new Passover sacrifice involves a new Passover meal.

It is no wonder, therefore, that John, who insists on Jesus’ role as the Passover Lamb, also relates Jesus’ insistence upon the need for believers to feast upon him:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (John 6:53-56).”
In fact, the backdrop for this sermon was the feast of the Passover—Jesus’ second to last (cf. John 6:4).

Rodney Whitacre points out several things that indicate John 6 was meant to be read as a teaching on the Eucharist. First, Jesus' insistence on drinking his blood is inexplicable without seeing a Eucharistic backdrop for the passage - the image in no way follows from the context, Jesus' explanation of his identity of the true manna, the Bread of Life. Second, the term Jesus uses to describe his flesh as "real" food (alethos, 6:55), was used previously to describe Nathaniel as a "real" Israelite. No one supposes Nathaniel was simply a symbol of the archtypical Israelite, and not a true Israelite. Likewise, it should not follow that Jesus' flesh and blood were not consumed as actual food and drink. Third, the term from which we get the word Eucharist (eucharisteo) is used in the immediate context (6:11, 23). Fourth, the language of verse 53 follows the wording of the instution of the Eucharist in the synoptic accounts: "Take and eat; this is my body... Drink... This is my blood" (Matt 26:26-28). Finally, the word for "eats" in 6:54 is trogo, a word that is never used metaphorically but always to the pyhysical action of eating food.[4]

Incidentally, Paul also links the image of Christ as the Passover lamb and the need to celebrate the feast: “Christ our paschal lamb has been sacrificed; let us, therefore, keep the feast” (1 Cor 5:7-8). Paul specifically goes on to describe Christian repentance in terms of the feast of Unleavened Bread. He also speaks of the Eucharist within the context of Exodus imagery (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-3; 14-21). As John connects the giving of the miraculous bread of the manna with Jesus’ command to eat his flesh and drink his blood, Paul appears to link the crossing of the Red Sea with Baptism and the manna with the Eucharist (“supernatural food”). Through the Eucharist, Catholics believe God’s promise regarding the Passover was fulfilled: “you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever” (Exod 12:14).

This is the Cup
The Passover meal Jesus celebrated was structured around the drinking of four cups. Scott Hahn has argued convincingly that the words of institution were made by Jesus over the third cup. After the third cup was drunk, the meal reached its climax with the singing of the great Hallel (Ps 114-118) and the drinking of the fourth cup.

However, Jesus appears to have deliberately skipped the climactic cup. In Mark 14:26 we read, “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” The early Jewish Christian readers of the Gospel would no doubt have read this as describing the singing of the great Hallel. But they also would have noticed that Jesus clearly skipped the final, climactic cup.[5]

Jesus then goes out to the garden and prays, “remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). This expression clearly refers to Jesus’ suffering and death (cf. Mark 10:38-39). However, understood within the larger context of the Passover meal we can see the Gospel writers teaching us a profound truth—Jesus’ offering of his body and blood at the Last Supper is linked with his passion, death and resurrection. The sacrifice of Christ begins in the Upper Room.

The lesson for us here is that by partaking in the Eucharist we are called to offer up ourselves in union with Christ. Hahn writes, “…Jesus calls us, as his disciples, to partake not only of the ‘third cup,’ that is, the ‘cup of blessing’ which we share in the Eucharist (see 1 Cor 10:16), but also of the ‘fourth cup’ by dying for him (Mark 10:38-39). Only then is the paschal mystery truly fulfilled in us.”[6]

Passover imagery may also be found in the book of Revelation. The book describes God’s deliverance of his people and his judgment on a wicked city—which Revelation 11:8 calls (among other things) “Egypt.” The saints are portrayed as standing beside a great sea (of glass), much like the Israelites, singing a “New Song” (cf. Exod 15; Rev 15:1-4). The destruction of the city comes about in a series of plagues, which are described in imagery eerily reminiscent of the plagues of Exodus (cf. Rev 16).[7]

In Revelation 19 we read about the final deliverance of the saints, which occurs after seven cups are poured out. The imagery climaxes in the saints singing “Hallelujah!” (drawing from the Hallel psalms) and a supper in which the redeemed enter into communion with the Lamb. Scholars here recognize Passover imagery: cups are poured out, the singing of the Hallel(ujah), and the celebration of supper of the Lamb. Again, this imagery seems ripe with Eucharistic imagery as well.

Christ brings about the New Exodus in which we are delivered from bondage to sin and brought to our true heavenly homeland. Through the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist we are united with Christ the Lamb and enter into the new Passover meal. Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed—let us keep the feast.

(Read Part 4.)
[1] As we saw in Part 2 of this essay, Deuteronomy 16:5-17 mandates annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the three major feats:Passover/Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth).
[2] As those familiar with more scholarly works probably know, there is a rather heated debate about whether or not Jesus’ Last Supper actually was a Passover. A number of issues could be raised, including the fact that many believe that John’s gospel indicates that Passover had not yet taken place at the time of the trial of Jesus—the high priests would not go into the praetorium, “so they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (John 19:28). I cannot deal with this whole problem here. Suffice it to say, arguments have already been put forward by others to show that the Passover nature of the meal should not be called into question. See Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: John (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2003), 44; also see Cullen I. K. Story, "The Bearing of Old Testament Terminology on the Johannine chronology of the Final Passover of Jesus," Novum Testamentum 31 (1989): 316-324.
[3] In fact, Isaiah 25:6-8 tells us of a great supper which will take place in the eschatological age.
[4] Rodney Whitacre, John (IVPNTCS; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 168-9.
[5] See William Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 508; David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Peabody: Hendricksen, 1995), 331.
[6] Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keep His Promises (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1998), 233. Also see pages 291-2 for secondary sources.
[7] For a full discussion, see my commentary, Coming Soon: Unlocking the Book of Revelation and Applying Its Lessons Today (Steubenville: Emmaus Road, 2005). 187, 195-6.

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